Let’s celebrate the Stylophone, the little musical synthesizer toy from London, which musicians of all ages should consider! Introduced in 1968, it had the look of a small transistor radio. A little stylus, a pen-like attachment, could be dragged or tapped on a suggested/engraved keyboard and an electronic musical message emitted forth for all to enjoy.
Below is a virtual stylophone that you can play right now online (although you’ll be stuck in the lower octave and not have a vibrato option).
Not-so-fun-for-parents-fact: the first stylophone was issued without an ear-piece option, causing well-intentioned gift-giving parents to bombard the Dubreq company with pleadings of an immediate and silencing upgrade. A muting-for-others earpiece was immediately added to the design and kids of the household could practice as long as they wished.
In September 2021, the indefatigable Dubreq Company announced a limited edition Stylophone dedicated to iconic rocker David Bowie. In honor of its one-year anniversary, I picked up the new model to add to my collection.
This glam version retains all the 1968 charm and naivite of the original Stylophone.
The transistor radio craze of the late sixties created a grateful market for the Stylophone, an inexpensive, battery-operated, easily-transported personal synth toy that young people HAD to have.
David Bowie became an unofficial spokesperson for the Stylophone early in his career, when he mentioned that he often travelled with the instrument; in fact, it was the only musical tool he would take with himself on holiday. Its compact design and ease-of-play meant that if a motif popped into Bowie’s head, he could play it immediately and notate it for later use.
Note: Jump to the 5:21 mark to see David Bowie grab a Stylophone and play upon it!
A few Stylophone moments in recording history
One of the earliest uses of the Stylophone in pop music was in the Small Faces’ song “Donkey Rides, a Penny a Glass” (released as the B-side of their single “The Universal” in June 1968.)
David Bowie played the Stylophone on his 1969 debut hit “Space Oddity” and also for his 2002 album Heathen in the track titled “Slip Away.”
Kraftwerk’s 1981 song “Pocket Calculator” heavily and super-successfully showcases the Stylophone throughout!
Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” features a delightfully crackly stylophone solo.
Here are some recent Stylophone models to keep an eye out for:
In December 2012, Dubreq released the Series 2 Stylophone, a British-made, true analogue synthesizer!
Stylophone Beat Box
Straying from the classic box-shaped stylophone, this model has a circular keypad containing 13 contact areas. It offers three different sound banks, a tempo control, and a handy record/loop function.
Stylophone Gen X-1
Fans were thrilled when, in January 2017, Dubreq released details of the Stylophone Gen X-1 portable analogue synthesizer
Stylophone GEN R-8
In 2019 Dubreq announced the Gen R-8, a limited edition, full-analogue, metal-cased stylophone. This version has features seen on more expensive analogue synthesizers and is considerably larger than the standard model.
Stylophone Analog Sound S1
In 2020, Dubreq released a replacement for the standard 2007 S1. The new model is visually similar to its predecessor but has fewer rounded corners and no auxiliary input.
Bowie Limited Edition
In 2021 Dubreq launched a limited-edition version of the Analog S1 as a tribute to the late David Bowie! This model has an all-white finish, with an official Bowie logo, and comes with a booklet that includes photos, interviews, and tablature for a selection of Bowie’s songs.
I’ve also seen a super-small keychain version of the classic Stylophone. If you come across one, you should get it!
Scott Paulson is the Exhibits and Events Coordinator at the UC San Diego Library and the Silent Film Curator at La Jolla Historical Society. He’s the founder of Geisel Library’s Annual Toy Piano Festival and their Annual Paper Theater Festival. Welcome back, Scott!